Basil Variety: Sweet Dani

A winning basil with astrong lemon flavor.

| April/May 1998

  • ‘Sweet Dani’ lemon basil, growing vigorously in the test fields at Purdue University’s O’Neall Vegetable Research Farm
    Photograph by Mario Morales
  • Light, sweet, and lemony, this new basil is a culinary herb with a future.
    Photograph courtesy of PanAmerican ­Seed

‘Sweet Dani’, a vigorous, large-leaved green basil with a strong, fresh lemon scent, is an All-America Selection for 1998. The new basil, a hybrid showing characteristics of Ocimum basilicum and O. americanum, owes its intense lemon flavor to a high concentration of citral, up to 65 percent, in the essential oil.

Susan Belsinger, whom I worked with on Basil: An Herb Lover’s Guide, describes the aroma of ‘Sweet Dani’ as very sweet and lemony with a hint of perfume followed by a touch of mint and spice. When she tasted a leaf, she discovered a resinous, oily lemon flavor, easily the strongest lemon taste we’ve come across among basils.

The new introduction from Pan-American Seeds is the work of James E. Simon, a research professor at ­Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, and his colleague in the horticulture department, Mario Morales. ‘Sweet Dani’ grew out of a bigger proj­ect Simon was working on during the late 1980s on basils’ essential oils. He became interested in breeding basils for their ornamental value. “It was a bootleg project that I thought would anchor us in reality,” Simon said. ‘Sweet Dani’ became a six-year research project on its own.

Simon’s idea was to put together a diverse group of basils, let them cross-pollinate, and see what happened. He and his staff rounded up eighty different basils—deep purple basils from Iran, treelike green camphor basils from Africa, handsome cinnamon basils with glossy green leaves and dark purple flower spikes, and many others—and grew them together on a plot at Purdue’s O’Neall Vegetable Research Farm. At the end of the season, they gathered seed from the plants and mixed them together in a paper bag.

The following year, they sowed the seeds, and soon the experimental field was full of strange and beautiful basils. The wide sweep of color, form, and bloom in the field suggested basils’ uncommon diversity. Simon prowled the field, checking the form and aroma of every plant, and selected a handful as worthy of further study. One of these was a tall plant with a lemon aroma that later became ‘Sweet Dani’. Other basils from this breeding program are likely to appear in the marketplace in coming years.

The chosen plants were dug up, brought into a greenhouse, and separated to discourage further cross-­pollination. Seed was collected from each plant, and the long process of reselection and stabilization of each plant’s characteristics began. Building up a plentiful supply of reliable seed took many plant generations, and it was several years before ‘Sweet Dani’ was ready for commercial release.

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